The Language Perfectionist: Fragmentation Grenades

Our grade-school teachers instructed us to write complete sentences – “complete” meaning that every sentence is supposed to contain a subject and a predicate. They admonished us to avoid incomplete sentences or “sentence fragments,” such as:

  • Jim showed her the painting he had just completed. Watched her reaction.
  • I won’t see that film. Unless my favorite actor is in it.

In general, it makes sense to observe the complete-sentence rule. But good writers sometimes use sentence fragments deliberately for specific purposes, such as variety, emphasis, irony, and humor. Here’s an effective use of the technique by Judith Kitchen, an essayist and poet:

“Today I woke up half a century old. I am not ready. Too much yet to do. Too much everyday living. Too much left unsaid, unimagined.”

In his rule-challenging usage guide Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins, Theodore M. Bernstein offered some excellent advice:

“Experienced writers… often use fragmentary sentences for rhetorical effect. … Such writers know what they are doing, they do it deliberately rather than accidentally and they do not mislead the reader into expecting a complete sentence. … [Sentence fragments] must be used purposefully. … As is true of any other writing device, they must not be overused, they must not become a mannerism.”

To paraphrase the TV announcers: Try this at home only if you’re a pro!

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book forthcoming from AWAI, that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into critiquing, consulting, training, and speaking.]